The Eagle has Landed was Jack Higgins' breakthrough work.
Before its publication, Higgins was an unknown novelist trying
hard to make it in the very competitive genre of adventure
thrillers. Since The Eagle has Landed, Higgins has written
dozens of novels and many have been bestsellers. Today, his
books can be found in airport terminals throughout the world.
A testament to its popularity, The Eagle has Landed can still
be found in these stands along with the more current titles of
the Grisham's, Clancy's, and Crichton's of the literary world.
What makes Higgins work so popular is not their beautiful
description, extensive character development, or the wonderful
prose, but his exciting and clever plots. In The Eagle has
Landed, Higgins has created a story that is so riveting, that
the book is nearly impossible to put down. What sets this
book apart from all of the others he has written, as well as
those of his colleagues, is that the author claims that it is
based on historical facts. Higgins claims that the plot of
The Eagle has Landed is not just a whim of his imagination,
but a story of historical credibility. The plot, which can
be simply described as a German Nazi plot to kidnap Winston
Churchill, supposedly originates from years of painstaking
research and a multitude of interviews. While some find it
believable, Higgins plot is far too fantastic to be taken as
serious history and his claims add little to a story which is
exciting enough on its own.
Unlike many bestsellers, The Eagle has Landed does not attempt
to tackle any prevalent social issues of its time. It does not
make a commentary on contemporary society. Instead, the book
exists for the sole purpose of entertainment. Within the plot,
there are many twists and turns that make it hard to put down.
The characters of The Eagle has Landed also have enough
psychological complexity to draw the reader into their every
action. The story begins with Higgins stumbling on the story
while doing some research for another topic in the small
coastal village of Studley Constable, England. In the village
church cemetery, Higgins claims to reveal a small hidden
memorial to a group of German paratroopers who died there
while "in action" in November, 1943. Immediately, Higgins
is filled with curiosity as to how and why these German
paratroopers died. What could they have been doing there
fighting in England and it never be mentioned in any history
book? With this question, Higgins has stirred up the reader's
curiosity and sucked them into his story. The first chapter
follows Higgins around the small village trying to get some
answers. To heighten the interest, Higgins is met with much
hostility and unfriendly silence. This does not deter him
and after two years of research, Higgins claims to have arrived
at the truth - supported only by the interviews of relatives
of eyewitnesses, sources which can hardly be categorized as
historically reliable. Nevertheless, Higgins story is
attractive enough that we keep reading and it doesn't take
long to realize that it was the right decision.
Higgins ends his role after the first chapter and gets into the
"facts" of his discovery. Apparently, on the coattails of
Mussolini's successful extraction from imprisonment in the
Italian Alps, Hitler was confident that even greater things
could be accomplished with his highly skilled commando units.
His bold new idea was to capture Winston Churchill and thus,
the officials of the German High Command sprung into action.
Put in command of the operation was Colonel Max Radl. Initially,
Radl hoped the idea would fade away - just like all of the
other fantasies of their Fuhrer. Ready to dismiss the
impossible mission, German intelligence receives a transmission
from a spy vaulting the plan back into motion. The spy's name
is Joanna Grey, a woman living in Studley Constable, who reports
that on the weekend of November 6, 1943, the Prime Minister
would be spending a long weekend in their quaint little village.
The German command realizes that this is the perfect
opportunity for them to attempt the mission and that a commando
unit must be organized immediately.
By this time in the book, Higgins has begun something that is
entirely new to World War II adventure thrillers. The main
characters of the novel, the one's whose lives the reader will
follow, are on the side that is normally the enemy, the side
that we normally love to hate. It is very unusual that the
reader be enticed by members of the Nazi army, but in The Eagle
has Landed, this is what takes place. Higgins' portrayal of the
Nazi soldiers is very favorable and one cannot help but be
attracted to them. The are not presented as evil racists
responsible for the Holocaust, but as honorable and heroic men.
The first character like this is Radl. While loyal to the
desires of the Fuhrer, Radl realizes that the Nazi cause is
wandering in focus and losing the war. He realizes that Hitler
is a lunatic and one cannot help but feel pity for the man in
his situation. He is asked to pull off the impossible and if
he fails, such a daring plan will look like an act of treason,
resulting certainly in his death.
Another of Higgins characters, who would normally not be made
into a hero, is the German paratrooper Radl selects to lead the
mission, Kurt Steiner. When Higgins first introduces Steiner,
he realizes that first impressions mean everything when judging
a character. He describes Steiner being court-martialed from
the German army for attempting to save a Jewish girl from going
to the concentration camp. This disloyal act gets him suspended
until he is presented with Radl's plan to drop into England.
He does not turn this chance down, for he knows that success
could mean the reinstatement of his rank and the rank of his
loyal men. He accepts the offer to lead the mission on the
condition that if they die, they must be allowed to fight
with their former distinction - an example of Steiner's great
Steiner and Radl are not the only examples of Higgins sympathetic
portrayal of the German soldiers. He paints them as good,
humane men and loyal soldiers, overwhelmed in a cause that
they don't understand or represent. What Higgins seems to be
trying to say is that not every German soldier was involved or
supported the atrocities for which they are so well remembered.
There are several examples of this German chivalry when the
plot unfolds. The German paratroopers successfully drop into
England and disguised in Polish uniforms, pretend to be training.
The plan is working to perfection, especially since Steiner
is half-English and can speak the language without an accent.
The plan begins to unravel however, when one of the German
soldiers jumps into an aqueduct to save a little girl's life.
The brave soldier manages to save the girl's life, but gets
killed in the process. To the shock of the bystanders, the
soldier's German uniform is uncovered when his training uniform
is torn off his body. Thus, the plan is no longer a secret and
the German paratroopers must take the entire village hostage.
Higgins cleverly constructed this example of the German's heroic
deed to be the beginning of their plan's demise.
Higgins use of making characters, which are usually the enemy,
into heroes, isn't limited to Nazis. One of Higgins' most famous
characters is first introduced in The Eagle has Landed and is
a product of his own life experience. This character is Liam
Devlin, an IRA hitman determined to fight England so that there
may be a "unified Ireland." Higgins was no stranger to the IRA
and its activities while growing up in Ireland. His father and
uncle were both involved in the cause and grew up taking
shelter from gunfire and bombs. Devlin is portrayed as a very
likable fellow blessed with an easy sense of humor, a swift
intellect, fighting skills, and knack for reciting poetry at
the oddest of times. It is Devlin, hiding in Berlin, who is
recruited by Radl to sneak into England and scope things out
before the arrival of the paratroopers. Fueled with revenge,
Devlin is excited to be a part of the plan - plan he admits
only seems feasible when he is drunk. Despite the fact that
he is highly skilled killer, Devlin is portrayed as a good old
Irish gentleman, a guy one might see wearing a "kiss me, I'm
Devlin successfully paves the way for the Germans until, of
course, the previously mentioned incident involving the little
girl. Steiner still thinks he is in control when he takes the
villager's hostage, but the reality is that the doom of he and
his plan is imminent. One villager manages to escape and notify
some United States Army Rangers, who are training just miles
down the road, of the German plan to assassinate Churchill.
With that, Churchill is intercepted and brought to safety by
the Rangers. The Americans then go after the Germans and the
result is a heart-throbbing scene of commando action. Due to
Higgins' ingenious portrayal of the Germans, it is interesting
to find that the reader is actually rooting for the Nazis.
This is perhaps the most serious issue addressed in the entire
book. The reality of the battle between the Americans and the
Germans is that killing each other is senseless. There is
neither a good side nor a bad side. The German paratroopers
are not the barbaric culprits of genocide as they are normally
viewed, but a band of loyal soldiers fighting for their pride
and their leader, Steiner. This is evident when they urge
Steiner to escape when he can and that they will remain behind
to cover his escape. It is a moving scene in the book when
these young soldiers choose a certain death for the success of
their mission and the life of their leader. The Americans
certainly aren't the enemy either because, after all, they are
Americans. What Higgins achieves in this scene is masterful
for it is painful to read the slaughter of the Germans.
The story is far from over because Devlin and Steiner escape.
At this point, Devlin abandons the hope of getting Churchill
and concentrates on his own safety. The brave Steiner doesn't
give up so easily and is adamant about achieving his objective.
Under the cover of night, he eludes the Rangers and manages to
find Churchill in a nearby residence. Again, Higgins builds the
suspense and in the climactic scene, just as Steiner is to shoot
Churchill, the German is assaulted by heavy gunfire from one of
the Rangers. Steiner is killed and the Prime Minister saved -
a scene that is truly amazing when remembering that Higgins is
claiming his story to be of historical fact. One cannot help
but be overcome with the thought of the possible repercussions
had Churchill been shot. The mind is sent racing with a
multitude of "what-ifs" and the heart pounding with the utter
Higgins, however, is still not done. His plot has more surprises
that need to be revealed. In his last chapter, Higgins returns
to Studley Constable to meet with an old priest who lived during
the event. Higgins claims that the priest can verify his
research for everything except for the fact that the man
Steiner had in his sights was actually Churchill. Higgins
learns from the priest that Churchill was in Tehran at the time
and that the man in Studley Constable was a Churchill
impersonator. By having Churchill in two places, Higgins
explains, it would make it very difficult to coordinate an
assassination attempt. Thus, Radl and Steiner's entire mission
was a wash - a wild goose chase, which cost the lives of many
good men, for the wrong man.
Higgins' plot is astoundingly intricate and complex, filled
with twists and turns that make the novel hard to put down.
It is hard to imagine a story that could be more riveting with
characters more heroic and likeable. What makes Higgins' novel
special is its angle from the opposite side. It is intriguing
to read about Higgins characters, people that we are normally
trained to despise. Perhaps the only fault within the novel is
Higgins claim to historical fact. While some find the story
believable, its plot is far too intricate with too many
coincidental turns to even be considered as history. Despite
the flaw, The Eagle has Landed is by far Higgins' best work and
has not yet met its match either from Higgins or any other
author in its genre. As Tom Clancy exclaims, "Higgins is the
*The New York Times Book Review, August 17, 1975
*The London Times, September 14, 1975
*The Unofficial Jack Higgins Homepage